A vivid portrait of California’s land and people emerges from a sympathetic family biography.
Drawing on interviews, oral histories, and extensive archival sources, journalist and Pulitzer Prize–winning editor Pawel (The Crusades of Cesar Chavez: A Biography, 2014, etc.) examines California’s colorful, dramatic, and turbulent history through her biography of the ambitious and influential Browns, a family indelibly involved in the state’s fortunes since 1951, when Edmund G. “Pat” Brown (1905-1996) was sworn in as California’s attorney general. A few years later, as he considered running for governor, he extolled his great state: “To think that I will have some part, good or bad, in shaping its destiny is sobering.” A gregarious politician whose style of campaigning, his wife said, was “low comedy,” in 1959 Brown succeeded in becoming California’s 32nd governor, overseeing a period of exuberant economic and population expansion. His son, Jerry, however, seemed uninterested in following in his father’s footsteps; instead, he entered a Jesuit seminary to study for the priesthood, which he saw as “a path to public service—and an alternative to the commercial politics of his father’s world.” Yet after a few years, bristling against the mandate of “obedience to dogma” that quashed “his inquiring mind and spirit,” he renounced his calling. Politics inevitably drew him: After law school, he won a seat on the Los Angeles school board; a year and a half later, he won election as secretary of state. In 1975 he became the 34th—and youngest—governor of California. Although Pawel chronicles the political career of Pat Brown’s daughter Kathleen, who served as California State Treasurer, Jerry takes center stage for much of the book, as the author recounts his “refreshing” candor and unconventional leadership during his first two terms as governor, earning him the epithet of “Governor Moonbeam”; his years of soul-searching and recalibration after he was defeated in tries for the presidency; his return as defiant and spirited mayor of Oakland and, in 2010, to statewide power as California’s 39th—and oldest—governor.
A well-informed history of a powerful dynasty.